Last week my friend and nemesis John Barber posted a very funny story that first appeared on Reddit ten years ago, posted by a Lard_Baron in response to the question, “What is a word or phrase that you totally misunderstood as a child?”
When I was young my father said to me: “Knowledge is power, Francis Bacon.” I understood it as “Knowledge is power, France is bacon.”
For more than a decade I wondered over the meaning of the second part and what was the surreal linkage between the two. If I said the quote to someone, “Knowledge is power, France is Bacon,” they nodded knowingly. Or someone might say, “Knowledge is power” and I’d finish the quote “France is bacon,” and they wouldn’t look at me like I’d said something very odd, but thoughtfully agree. I did ask a teacher what did “Knowledge is power, France is bacon” mean and got a full 10-minute explanation of the “knowledge is power” bit but nothing on “France is bacon.” When I prompted further explanation by saying “France is bacon?” in a questioning tone, I just got a “yes.” At 12 I didn’t have the confidence to press it further. I just accepted it as something I’d never understand.
It wasn’t until years later I saw it written down that the penny dropped.
My other friend Carolyn Givens asked “does this qualify as a mondegreen?” I didn’t know what a mondegreen was, so I went down a rabbit hole…
A mondegreen is a word or phrase that results from a mishearing—often a mishearing of a song lyric. The word mondegreen was coined by the writer Sylvia Wright in a 1954 article in The Atlantic, “The Death of Lady Mondegreen.” As a child, Wright had been fond of a Scottish ballad that included the lines,
They hae slain the Earl Amurray
And laid him on the green.
Little Sylvia Wright thought that second line was “And Lady Mondegreen,” which, to be fair, does sound exactly like “And laid him on the green.” Her version of the ballad was twice as tragic as the original, since it involved not only the death of Earl Amurray but also the death of Lady Mondegreen.
Everybody, it seems, has stories of misheard lyrics, often from their childhood. My brother-in-law Tom was six years old when Eddie Money released his hit song, “Two Tickets to Paradise”—or, as Tom heard it, “Two Chickens in Paradise.” I remember what it was like to be little and listening to the radio. People are using figurative language to talk about things you wouldn’t understand even if they were being literal. So you do the best you can. You search around for something you do understand that might have some relationship to the string of sounds you’re hearing. For a literal-minded six-year-old “two chickens in paradise” might not make a lot of sense, but it doesn’t make any less sense than “two tickets to paradise.” Kids are used to repeating things they don’t understand. I used to repeat “I pledge allegiance to the flag” at least five times a week. I don’t know what I thought I was saying; I’m quite sure, however, that I didn’t know what either “pledge” or “allegiance” meant.
I’ve known Elvis Presley’s song “Return to Sender” my whole life. Except that for the first part of my life, I got it in my head that he was singing “Regundazinda.” It’s not that I thought “regundazinda” meant anything; I just concluded it was a nonsense word and quit trying to make meaning out of it. After all, I didn’t waste any time trying to ascertain the meaning of “doo ron ron ron” or “wop boppa loo bop a wop bam boom” either. When I finally learned that the line was really “Return to sender,” I thought, “Yeah, I guess that makes a certain kind of sense too.”
It’s strange, isn’t it, that once you settle on what something means, your mind calcifies around it. I know that the lyric is really “return to sender.” I’ve known it for probably forty years now. But if I were alone and singing to myself, I would almost certainly sing “Regundazinda.” To me that still feels like the original version, the version I knew before the revisionists came along with their new lyrics.
On a similar note, when I was growing up, this was the logo of the US Postal Service:
As you can see, it’s a blue silhouette of a man in a long-brimmed hat facing toward the left. The hat, I suppose, is some kind of colonial-era hat that nobody wears any more. Maybe this is the silhouette of Paul Revere, or an early postmaster, from Boston or Philadelphia or something? I was never able to make much sense of the blue loop jutting out from the back of his neck—a collar of some kind? a half-halo? I chose not to overthink it.
I was a grown man before I found out it wasn’t supposed to be a man facing left, but an eagle facing right. As I said, one’s mind calcifies around its ideas.
In 1993 the postal service changed to a logo that is more obviously an eagle:
Every time I see that logo, I feel nostalgic for the man in the colonial hat. But I digress.
Closely related to the mondegreen is the eggcorn. An eggcorn, to quote merriam-webster.com, is “a word or phrase that sounds like and is mistakenly used in a seemingly logical or plausible way for another word or phrase either on its own or as part of a set expression.” The key phrase there is “in a seemingly logical or plausible way.” At Miller Elementary School, we always said “out of bounce” instead of “out of bounds.” That’s an error, but it’s a logical and plausible error. When do you call a ball out of bounds? When it bounces out of the lines.
An oft-cited eggcorn is “Old-Timer’s Disease” for Alzheimer’s Disease. Jigsolve puzzle, wheelbarrel, Valentime’s Day, mute point—all are errors, but all are logical and plausible errors. They are all eggcorns.
Sometimes mondegreens and eggcorns cross the boundary from error to standard usage. “Spitting image” is a mondegreen for “spit and image.” A now-archaic definition of spit is “exact likeness,” so “spit and image” meant “likeness and image.”
Either “You’ve got another think coming” is an eggcorn for “You’ve got another thing coming,” or vice-versa. People who argue about such things don’t agree on which came first. (I always thought it was “You’ve got another thing coming,” and have an unreasonably strong aversion to “You’ve got another think coming”—not because I’m right but because, yet again, the mind calcifies around its initial idea.)
Another closely related (and excessively technical) term is oronym. An oronym is a string of words that sounds like another string of words, but with the words or syllables broken up at different places. You are employing an oronym when you say “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.”
The old novelty song “Mairzy Doats” operates on the principle of the oronym:
Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
A kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you?
Yes! Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
A kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you?
If the words sound queer and funny to your ear, a little bit jumbled and jivey
Sing “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy”
Even though I have written out the above oronyms, oronyms only work in spoken language. In written language, spelling, spaces, and punctuation clarify where the syllables and words start and end and so rescue us from the mistakes that result in oronyms. In spoken English, you can mistake “realize” for “real eyes.” In written English, you can’t make that mistake. That’s why it was so painful when one of my students wrote about Donkey Oatey on her final exam. THE FINAL EXAM! If she had looked at her book even once, she would have known we had been talking about Don Quixote that whole time.
Oronyms, mondegreens, and eggcorns are usually funny and always interesting…also, they highlight what a miracle spoken communication really is. The mistakes that lead to oronyms are funny and interesting because they are so rare. Vocalized sounds come at you in a nearly uninterrupted stream, and yet your brain almost always succeeds in knowing where the syllables and words and sentences begin and end. “Four candles” sounds just like “fork handles,” and “hoes” sounds just like “hose.” It can be hilarious when people get them mixed up, but only because they almost never do.
Bonus: The McGurk Effect
Do you like linguistics? Do you like optical illusions? Then you’re going to love the McGurk Effect.
As you may have noticed in your interactions with people in masks, seeing people’s lips move can be a big help when you’re trying to understand what sounds are coming out of their mouths. Except when it’s not. I won’t say more. Just watch the video:
The “Bad Lip Reading” videos work on the McGurk Effect…or, more precisely, an inversion of the McGurk Effect. This is one of my favorite episodes:
Bonus Bonus: Extra Reading
- Yet another related linguistics term is rebracketing. I devoted an issue of The Habit Weekly to this topic in 2019. “Helicopter, Goldendoodle, Outrage: On Rebracketing“
- If you want to read even more about mondegreens, check out Maria Konnikova’s 2014 New Yorker article (from which I borrowed for this article). “Excuse Me While I Kiss This Guy“